Do Growth Mindsets Spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S for National Spelling Bee Competitors?

By Evie Blad — May 29, 2015 3 min read
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Some researchers have suggested that few things spell success in the classroom like a student’s approach to learning and making mistakes.

And I wonder if the same is true for winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Did co-champions Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, and Vanya Shivashankar, 13, win Thursday because they are inherently great spellers? Or because they learned how to move on when they heard that cursed bell after misspelling a word at previous bees? Maybe the answer is a mix of the two options.

The concept I’m referring to is called growth mindset, popularized by Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck. Here’s how Dweck describes the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They're wrong. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities."

Dweck and other researchers have found S-U-C-C-E-S-S in boosting students’ academic achievement after training them about the brain’s ability to grow and change using an online program called “Brainology.”

So what does this have to do with the National Spelling Bee?

I don’t know the co-champions, so I can only speculate about their approach to learning. But they won the bee only after repeated trips (five for Shivashankar, the sister of a past champion, and six for Venkatachalam) and years of hard studying, which would seem to suggest a willingness to stretch, struggle, and try new approaches.

“It was the culmination of all the hard work of the past six years,” Venkatachalam told the Washington Post. “I’m finally happy to have success.”

Indeed, even competitors who fall short of winning at the National Spelling Bee demonstrate a similar approach. In interviews with their local papers, multi-year competitors described changing their methods of studying over time from memorizing lists of words to a more sophisticated approach that involves learning word roots and meanings.

So what would a fixed mindset look like at a spelling bee? It might look like spelling out one year and quickly deciding you are “not a spelling person,” in the same way a friend of mine declares she’s “not a math person” every time she asks me to split the check at a restaurant.

For examples of this attitude, read the Twitter timeline of Deadspin writer Drew Magary, who retweeted readers’ stories of failing at spelling bees. Some were just funny, and some showed that “not a spelling person” attitude. (Magary has compiled the tweets here.)

Shivashankar and Venkatachalam are clearly very bright kids, and they probably couldn’t have won such a tough competition without that natural intelligence. But maybe their approach to learning helped too.

And maybe these disgruntled spellers wouldn’t have made it to nationals if they had a different view of learning. But maybe they would have made it a few rounds further the next year if they hadn’t let their mistakes haunt them well into adulthood.

Your friendly blogger misspelled “ragout” in her 4th grade spelling bee, and she still hasn’t gotten over the defeat. She did not compete again in future bees, and now she somehow works with words for a living.

What do you think? Do mindsets make a difference?

Photo: Vanya Shivashankar, second from left, 13, of Olathe, Kan., and Gokul Venkatachalam, right, 14, of St. Louis, are greeted onstage by their families as co-champions after winning the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday. --Andrew Harnik/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.